Review: The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich

February 8th, 2014

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More humorous short stories from Simon Rich, who’s been on a roll lately in the New Yorker. I like his style, which involves calmly building on familiar tropes until they explode into the absurd. On the whole, this series is good–there aren’t many duds in the bunch. But there didn’t seem to be many standouts either, and I think that’s in part because of the theme Rich has chosen.

The Last Girlfriend on Earth” is pretty much devoted to boy-girl pairings, with both participants in their twenties and the relationship either coming, building, or gone. There’s a lot of good humor to find in the topic, and Rich does, but the organizing principle for the collection doesn’t offer a lot of thematic range.

My favorite stories were ones that changed the setting or the rules somewhat. We have a great caveman love story with “I Love Girl,” and God deals with the pressure of creating the cosmos and maintaining a happy relationship in “Center of the Universe.” There’s also a surprisingly touching story about the age and retirement of a boy’s first condom in his wallet in “Unprotected.”

But while Rich tries not to stereotype, a lot of his stories capture a view of women as some unknowable “other,” weird and capricious. It’s a view that will feel familiar to many guys in their teens and early twenties (heck, maybe even older) as they try to figure out the mysteries of dating and love. But it feels limiting in many of the stories, and a couple, like “Scared Straight” and “The Girlfriend Repair Shop,” give a real whiff of the locker room.

But all in all, the stories are funny, and Rich doesn’t seem to want to make anyone look bad. I look forward to checking out another of his collections.

Review: Paul Pope, Battling Boy

January 21st, 2014

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Paul Pope is my favorite comics artist, so take this rating through that lens. I love the thick lines and expressive detail of his art as well as the “rawk and roll” energy that permeates everything he does. This volume doesn’t disappoint on the drawing board, conjuring up weird monsters, beautiful people, a sprawling city and weird Kirby-inspired future tech.

The story is a success too. We have the “Battling Boy” descending from a magical city in the sky to an earth in peril , taking on the coming of age quest that’s mandated in his warrior society. He throws himself into fighting the monsters menacing his new home, showing a mixture of bravado, inexperience and uncertainty that stretches all the way back to Peter Parker and beyond.

In a parallel story, the adolescent daughter of a murdered pulp hero takes up her dad’s mantle, resenting, in the process, this upstart newcomer. She’s rendered skillfully and sympathetically, and it’s exciting to see how they’ll interact–and how a city desperate for rescue will use them both.

This volume is definitely an introduction–it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, without much resolution. There’s a lot that’s familiar here for anyone who’s read many superhero comics. But its possessed with a unique energy and a first-class artistic talent, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Review: Templar by Jordan Mechner

September 2nd, 2013

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This historical fiction graphic novel is Holy Blood, Holy Grail meets the Italian Job as author Jordan Mechner follows up the arrest and dissolution of the Knights Templar with a heist plot to steal back their stores of gold. His characters are mostly scoundrels on the fringes of the order, with one true knight among them. The story takes them through the order’s collapse, with arrests, torture and false confessions staining the reputation of this wealthy, stateless army.

Mechner does a good job capturing the politics around the targeting of the Templars. An influential French minister senses weakness and aims to build himself up with their treasure. The torturers’ work feels grim and realistic, as do the coerced confessions. There’s even a late pushback as a legalistic priest uses the law to try to defend his brothers, only to finally realize the state’s patience for legal manuevering has run out.

We spend most of our time with the core cast, though. Our principal knight, Martin, escapes capture only because he’s out carousing with friends in the order, chasing an old love who got away. She returns to the plot as he and his mates aim to find the Templars’ hidden gold. Most of the party is just looking to enrich itself, although Martin has nobler objectives.

From there we get the usual complications and detective work as the oddball team closes in on their big target. Mechner and his illustrators, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, do excellent work capturing a lived-in feel for Medieval Paris. The characters are well distinguished, and the art team does a good portraying the ample action.

If you’ve watched any heist movies, the story will be familiar. The villains don’t have much depth, and several team members lend just the right skills to keep the plot going. (One, a Muslim convert who joins the crew, is a particularly egregious deus ex machina. His character may be well intended, but he’s certainly not believable.)

The volume is impressive and enjoyable, though, even if many of the elements are familiar. Especially recommended if you’re a fan of the Templar mythos.

Massive John Hodgman Interview

July 27th, 2013

Comedian Pete Holmes has a great (and very long) interview with John Hodgman on Holmes’ podcast, You Made It Weird. It’s wide-ranging stuff, moving from comedy and originality all the way to the question of Big Dadd G-O-D. Hodgman reveals a lot of his own personal history and goes into some good detail on leaving his job as a literary agent to try to stake his own creative claim. Holmes’ laugh is a bit of an aquired taste, but he serves as a nice foil, producing a really compelling listen.

Review: Tales Designed to Thrizzle Volume 2 by Michael Kupperman

July 25th, 2013

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Tales Designed to Thrizzle Volume 2 is wide ranging, bizarre and very funny. Michael Kupperman again turns a volume over to his comic imagination, riffing in stories ranging from single-page gags to an epic spoof of Quincy, M.E. that sees the 70s television coroner meet St. Peter (who has his own comic book) and get lost in an Inception-esque series of parodies.

The highlight is the recurring pairing of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, who have a range of oddball schemes and adventures. (“I’ll tell you Al,” one opens, “I never thought we would end up on a game show hosted by Count Dracula.)

Kupperman has Twain adopt a “try anything” tough-guy patter that’s hilarious, whether the great author is serving as a Hollywood detective, blowing up asteroids or taking “sexy reporter” pills smuggled in from Japan.

The different stories adopt varying styles, but most of the volume parrots the rough, vibrant outlines and “waste no time” plotting of early superhero comics. Characters are given to wacko lines and bold pronounements: “Get offa me, you ghostly clown!” or “Gimme some pants, then I gotta investigate you two.”

But you don’t have to be subtle when you’re sharing the adventures of Jungle Princess or revealing that the moon landing actually employed death-row convicts, a la The Dirty Dozen, who later find gold. You just have to funny, and Kupperman is

Comics Review: The Grand Duke

July 19th, 2013

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The Grand Duke is an adventurous graphic novel combining World War II action in the skies with quite a bit of “we might die tomorrow” coupling on the ground. It’s skillfully done, but I don’t think it quite transcends the pulp storytelling that inspired it.

Writer Yann’s plot does a good job laying clear its “tyrants decide, the people die” theme, especially with the vile Communist boss on the Russian side. But character development on the ground is frequently interrupted to get back into the air (or out of some clothes). Beyond that, the hero is a bit too noble–a Hitler-hating German who removes the swastika from his plane–and the villains too vile.

There are some nice curveballs on the margins of the plot, and all of the art is exquisite. Romain Hugault is just as comfortable drawing historic planes as gratuitous, voluptuous female nudes. His panels are rich and detailed. A lot of care went into the drawing, and the dogfight scenes really draw you into the action in the sky. Check it out, with classic Enemy Ace as a required complement.

A Shakespearian Cockblock

June 13th, 2013

I’m reading King Richard III, and I had to laugh at this footnote in the intro to the New Cambridge Shakespeare.

“Probably the most famous story about Burbage [one of Shakespeare’s lead actors] also concerns “King Richard III.” On 13 March 1602, John Manningham wrote in his “Diary”: ‘Upon a tyme when Burbridge played Rich. 3 there was a citizen greue soe farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was intertained, and at his game ere Burbridge came. Then message being brought that Rich the 3.d was at the dore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made that William the Conqueror was before Rich. the 3.’”

Review: J.D. Smith, “Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth”

June 12th, 2013

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J.D. Smith has a broad sense of humor. His new humor collection, “Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth,” has something to draw a laugh out of any reader…and maybe something to bug their eyes out with a welcome bit of surprise as well.

The formats are diverse—poems, lists, short stories, even a bingo grid—but it’s all carefully constructed with a clever Hodgman/McSweeney’s vibe. That’s true whether he’s listing “Scat Masterson” as one of the “Least-Feared Gunfighters in the Old West” or doing a Scorcese/Shakespeare mash-up in “Goodsonnet,” which opens with the immortal line, “Would you compare me to some kind of clown?”

The poems and longer-form humor are subtler, taking time to offer a sly twist on the familiar. I really enjoyed following J.D. through his paces; at the same time, the lists offer more quick-hit humor. (There are also two stories exploring sexual themes that may not be for every reader, although the endings offer satisfying payoffs.)

Full disclosure: I first read J.D. work when he published The Great Tuvalu Liquidation Sale, My Fetishist Things and As a Matter of Fact, I Am the Person You Have to Blow to Get a Table Around Here in FLYMF, a humor magazine I used to edit. Those stories are collected here with plenty of great company. Recommended if you’re looking for a laugh.

Book Review: Wizzywig by Ed Piskor

June 5th, 2013

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Wizzywig: Potrait of a Serial Hacker is compelling comics fiction from Ed Piskor, who tells the story of a hacker who moves from the early thrill of discovery to serious trouble with the law. Kevin Phenicle is a nerdy, picked-on kid who likes figuring out–and exploiting–systems, whether it’s buying the right punch to make his own bus-transfer passes or whistling the perfect tones for free long-distance calls.

His grandma gets him an early computer for his birthday one year, and he’s soon exploring BBSs and making money pirating games. Eventually he’s breaking into Ma Bell headquarters, inadvertently distributing massive worms and turning to life on the lam and eventually in prison.

Kevin’s an interesting character. He’s mistreated, sure, but he’s a schemer too, unafraid of boundaries he doesn’t respect, which is most of them. He’s not above working on the margins of the law, especially when he’s on the run, but he never seems eager to steal or hurt anyone who hasn’t hurt him first.

Piskor covers a lot of ground here, from teenage hijinks to the desperation of staying one step ahead of the feds and finally a brutal life in prison. He does it skillfully, with a cartoon-realism style. (He started by doing work with Harvey Pekar.) He likes big hair and weird faces and makes good use of single-shot “talking heads” to open chapters and offer commentary on the story.

Ultimately, the book suffers from a lack of subtlety. It’s openly on Kevin’s side, but it would benefit from giving more serious consideration to the people who are alarmed and afraid of what he’s doing. The media coverage is embodied in a cartoonishly monstrous buffoon of a local news anchor, and those scenes are the weakest in the book. You understand the author’s point with the character, but he could make it better with less, not more.

But Wizzywig is an imaginative exploration of a culture that pushed boundaries and broke the law. It also highlights the official overreaction to its existence, leading us to wonder what a just punishment, if any, would be for Kevin’s exploits.

Humor Collection from J.D. Smith

March 28th, 2013

Here’s a book I’m very much looking forward to reading–FLYMF alum J.D. Smith has published a humor compilation, “Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth.” As his “alum” status attests, J.D. is a very funny writer…and a few of these stories may have even been published in FLYMF! I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

J.D.’s stories for FLYMF included The Great Tuvalu Liquidation SaleMy Fetishist Things and As a Matter of Fact, I Am the Person You Have to Blow to Get a Table Around Here. You can follow all of J.D.’s updates on his blog, Smitroverse.